Struggling To Avoid Ripping Myself Off

The Thesaurus Is Not Always Your FriendIn my other life — where I go by my full name — I write everything from briefs and legal memoranda to law-related blog posts, consumer education materials, and articles. Normally, the topics are varied, but lately, I’ve been writing many pieces about the same narrow topic without any new information or even a new angle to share. These articles are part of a public education effort, one that requires publication in multiple avenues within a relatively short period of time. Each successive article is harder to write than the last, as I struggle to impart the same old information in an original way. More than once, I’ve stopped to wonder why I am being so careful when, clearly, ripping off myself isn’t a crime.

In a previous post, Who’s the Victim of Self-Plagiarism?, I noted that it’s hard to see what’s wrong about lifting content from my own previously published work. Unlike typical plagiarism, which usually consists of using or paraphrasing too closely someone else’s words, self-plagiarism appears to have no obvious victim. It does not deceive readers about my expertise, nor does it steal credit that belongs to another person.

However, the fact that I signed a contract with a publisher — one that required original content and barred multiple submissions of the same content — changes the equation. As I’ve said before, when an external publisher is involved:

What may seem like “stealing” content from [ourselves] — which doesn’t sound so bad — could really be stealing from someone else ([the] publisher of the previous work) and often requires lying by omission to others (the new publisher or a hiring committee) about the originality of those words and ideas.

So, what’s a conscientious, risk-averse writer to do when she has to draft yet another piece on the same topic for a different outlet? Well, when I am that writer, I suffer from writer’s block as I stare at the perfectly-worded (if I do say so myself!), previously-published articles and blog posts. Then, I try to change the structure of the content and, if possible, come up with appropriate synonyms.

Obviously, I cannot change technical terms, like “plaintiff” and “defendant,” but other words are interchangeable without altering the meaning. “Employee” becomes “worker,” but, because the thesaurus is not always a friend, the list of appropriate substitutes is slim (clearly, “toiler” or “serf” wouldn’t work). Unfortunately, though, after too many articles on the same topic within a short timeframe, the writing becomes stilted. It just doesn’t sound like me anymore.


Auto Bootlegging 1947*Image Above: I came up with “auto-bootlegging” as a bad synonym for “self-plagiarism” (self → auto; plagiarism → piracy → bootlegging) without knowing that “auto-bootlegging” is an actual word — or at least very close to one — from the 1940s and 1950s.

As I. Willis Russell explained in the December 1955 issue of American Speech  (Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 283-288), “bootlegging” occurs when “an overstocked new-car dealer sells his surplus stock at a little more than cost to a used-car dealer. The latter takes the cars into another territory and sells them at less than list price.” Crazy English.


  1. This really resonates with me. Anyone who’s contributed to the teacher’s edition of a K-12 textbook has faced the requirement to say something original, in each of four or five different categories in an extended margin, about how best to implement the content on the student page–when the student content itself has fewer words that the teacher material supporting it. This is a true test of creativity in nonfiction, work-for-hire writing.

  2. I run into this same problem when I’m working on copy writing jobs. How can you write about the same topic repeatedly yet not self-plagiarism? I honestly don’t think there’s a way without lots of thesaurus searching, brow wrinkling, and writer’s block.

    1. It’s very difficult to avoid recycling content. For me, the way around it is to wait long enough for new cases, laws, or clients related to the subject, but that hasn’t been possible with the short timeline I have for these articles. It’s so frustrating!

  3. I notice many times that I have (not plagiarized), but repeated the same content many times over. It’s very easy to self-plagiarize, and very difficult to control yourself.

    1. Yes, it is so difficult to avoid repeating content! Even when it doesn’t breach a contract, recycled content is still a problem because it’s boring for readers. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. Self-plagiarism is a very ambiguous concept. We only run into problems when it causes our material to be boring (because we’ve said the same stuff so many times!) and when it breaches a contract. Thankfully, I usually get to write about a variety of topics.

  4. It is why I don’t write on gardening daily. There just is such limited material that people don’t really know. Blogs rehash constantly and the material gets tiresome. Your case is much different in your field though. It would be the same if I wrote on architecture. As laws change at least there is a new perspective to take. Building changes quite a bit through time. Planting, not so much unless it is done for profit.

    1. Hi Donna! Yes, it helps when I have new cases to write about. The problem I’m having now is that I’ve had to write too many pieces in too short a timeframe. So, there really isn’t a new angle to take. I’m lucky that I don’t run into this problem very often!

  5. This problem plagues the memoirist, too! I write about the same events over and over, and it’s funny how, once you’ve described an event one way, it’s really hard to come up with a new take on it. It’s hard to undo that previous verbalization and see the subject anew. If you come up with any other tricks, let us know!

    1. Yeah, it’s tough to come up with a new way to say the same thing! In my field, it helps if there’s a new case to apply or a new client’s situation to describe, but I’m out of luck this time around. Thanks for stopping by!

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